It was in the period from 1820 to 1860 that separate Negro institutions were first formed in New Haven. After the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784, Negroes were often barred by policy, if not by law, from attending schools, churches, and other social institutions. Their real status in society was so low as to make their participation, when permitted at all, a humiliating and degrading experience. In churches blacks were expected to sit on a few benches at the back or stand against the back wall. In schools, those few who had the courage to attend were often subjected to open ridicule by teachers and students alike. Furthermore, they were not even allowed to go to any schools above the lowest level.
It was in this social and political context that Abolitionists began to encourage the development of separate institutions, feeling that this might be the only realistic way for Negroes to develop leadership as well as intellectual and social skills, both as individuals and as a group. No doubt, for many other whites who supported such institutions, their contributions served as a conscience-salving form of benevolence while at the same time “solving” the Negro problem by getting rid of it. The issue of separate institutions was also debated and supported by Negroes active in the Abolitionist movement; at the National Convention of Colored Citizens, meeting at Buffalo in 1843, a resolution was passed urging Negroes to leave any religious organizations in which equality was not practiced.
Public education in all of New Haven was poorly funded and slow to develop in the years before the Civil War, but Negro education was almost non-existent. There were, according to records, at least three “coloured schools” in the city by 1850, and a third, the Mount Pleasant School, was donated by two Abolitionists in 1835. There were also some classes for children and young people taught in one part of the first Negro church. The teachers included three women and one man. Little is known of what went on in these schools, but in 1853, when a report was made on the state of public education, the condition of Negro education was found to be deplorable. Schools were often far away from children’s homes; they were in poor physical condition; and the level of instruction, with all levels of children in one room, was inadequate. Average attendance at the schools was only one-third of the Negro children eligible to attend.
One Edward Bouchet, a student of Mrs. Sarah or Sally Wilson, went on to Hopkins Grammar School and was the first Negro to receive a Ph. D. from Yale in 1874, but it is most significant that so few blacks are known to have continued their education in this way during the period.
The anti-slavery sentiment of the pre-Civil War years did not end segregated schools in New Haven, but it did bring a commitment from the Board of Education to drastically improve separate Negro schools. The improvement culminated with the opening of the New Goffe Street School in 1865. With a new building, new teachers, and new equipment, the results were startling. Black children began attending school in large numbers, with enrollment reaching a total of 215 in the whole city in 1869. Average attendance rose to 87% of those registered, about the same as the white average. This enrollment of students in all-Negro schools soon declined, however, as black parents increasingly chose to press for their children’s acceptance in white schools. This option was apparently permitted by the Board of Education only with extreme reluctance and after much pressuring by parents. With the end of the war and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the legislated segregation of schools in New Haven gradually ended, and in 1874 the last separate school on Goffe Street was officially closed.
The period from 1820 to 1860 witnessed the beginning of numerous Negro congregations in New Haven. The first of these began meeting in 1820. Its members came from the Center Church, and Simeon Jocelyn, a member of that church, officiated at services and later became the first minister. It was formally recognized in 1829 as a Congregational church, the United African Society, but it met in its own small building on Temple Street beginning in 1824. William Lanson, the contractor and landlord mentioned above, and Scipio Augustus, another prominent figure in the black community, were two of the original committeemen. Jocelyn ceased to be the pastor in 1834, after which the church had black ministers, first James W. C. Pennington, an escaped slave allowed to audit classes (but not enroll) at the Yale Divinity School; then Amos Gerry Bemon. Both men later became well-known leaders in the national Abolitionist movement. This first Negro church, known as the Temple Street Church and later as the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, served as the focal point of social and educational life for New Haven blacks for many years.
The African Methodist Episcopal churches—Zion, Bethel, and Union—were formed in the 1840’s. St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was begun in 1844, one leading member being the great-uncle of W. E. B. DuBois. The Baptist Church, which later became the largest black congregation in the city, also began in the early 1840’s.
All these churches suffered great financial difficulties and were frequently dependent on the contributions of whites during their early histories, but all have survived to the present.
Summing up the development of black institutions at a state convention of colored people in 1854, Amos Bemon reported proudly that at that time in New Haven there were, in addition to the churches and schools discussed above, “a literary society, a circulating library, and about $200,000 worth of real estate owned by colored people.”